SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The USS Freedom has arrived in the 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility, marking a major milestone for the Navy’s beleaguered littoral combat ship program.

The Navy’s first LCS is transiting the Pacific toward Guam and its inaugural 7th Fleet port visit before heading to Singapore, where it will participate in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference and spend eight months conducting maritime security operations, according to a 7th Fleet statement.

“As the U.S. Navy supports the U.S. government rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, there is no better place to demonstrate LCS capabilities than in the 7th Fleet AOR,” 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Swift said in the statement. “Freedom’s deployment to Southeast Asia is a tremendous opportunity to bring our newest capability forward to conduct maritime security operations, port visits and exercises with our allies, partners and friends alongside other 7th Fleet units.”

Few believed the program — billed as the future of an ever-changing coastal surface-warfare landscape — would ever get off the ground, never mind deploy to such an important strategic region after years of cost overruns and structural deficiencies highlighted by hull cracks, corrosion and system failures.

In a 2011 report, the Pentagon said the first two LCS ships built — the Freedom and USS Independence — would be unable to fend off attacks if the problems weren’t fixed.

Littoral combat ships have a shallow draft so they can operate where bigger ships cannot. They are fast, can be constructed quickly, and can be fitted with different mission modules, such as surface warfare, minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare, depending on the mission.

The Freedom departed its homeport of San Diego on March 1, fitted with a surface-warfare mission package and maritime-security module, stopping in Hawaii from March 11-14, the statement said. The deployment will demonstrate the ship’s capabilities and allow the LCS Council — a working group established in August by chief of naval operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert — to evaluate crew rotation and maintenance plans.

Commanded by Cmdr. Timothy Wilke, the ship has 91 sailors, who include mission package personnel and an aviation detachment to operate an embarked MH-60 helicopter, the statement said. Halfway through its rotational deployment to Singapore, the crew will be swapped out and commanded by Cmdr. Patrick Thien.

The Freedom joins about 100 other ships and submarines deployed and assigned to the 7th Fleet area of responsibility on any given day, the statement said. The area covers more than 48 million square miles and spans from west of the international dateline to the western coast of India.

By the end of 2021, the Navy expects to have 24 littoral ships under contract, with 16 assigned to the Pacific Fleet.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Grafenwoehr, Germany, for Stars and Stripes since 2024. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Okinawa, Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the news organization. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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